BACK STAGE WEST
August 21, 2003
The curse of opening night--that's the only way to explain why the critics from the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, as well as two other critics I spoke to, were unimpressed with Alina Phelan's performance in the lead of Hamlet: the first quarto at Theatre of NOTE. They saw it on a faltering Friday, apparently, because the next night, the Saturday gala opening, I and my critic Madeleine Shaner witnessed something special: a Hamlet of fire and humor, immediacy and vitality, a brilliant melancholic whose "antic disposition" hit that magical middle ground between sincerely grief-stricken distraction and devilishly playful put-on foolery.
Phelan, who was educated at Cal Arts and regularly performs improv comedy with Those Meddling Kids, last appeared at NOTE as an infantilized abuse victim who believed she was the Icelandic pop diva Bjork, in Erik Patterson's Yellow Flesh/Alabaster Rose; she has an alert, expressive emotional fluency and a clarity of physical gesture any actor would envy. As Hamlet--in this fascinatingly sliced-and-diced early bootleg of Shakespeare's greatest, toughest play--Phelan doesn't try to make us forget she's a woman (and a very sweet, sanguine, gentle woman at that), but she does make her cross-gender casting feed the play's confused, cross-purposed pathos in some mysterious, alchemical way. Director Andrew Borba had the exceptional vision to see what she could bring to the role, and Phelan, a fan of the play from way back, stepped up to the plate and hit this curve ball out of the park.
Indeed, on a second viewing two weeks after opening, I saw an actor who had hit her stride and was riding the play with the kind of intense but relaxed bravura one associates with master Shakespearean showmen like Branagh or Olivier. Really, the performance is that good, that invigorating--and it's surrounded and supported by one of the strongest, supplest ensembles in my long memory of NOTE productions. So disregard those poor early notices, or you'll miss one of the most exhilarating, inspiring, joy-inducing acting feats on L.A. stages in a long, out-of-joint time.
"Hamlet: the first quarto" continues at Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Through Sept. 6. $15. (323) 856-8611.